Going Up (Michigan Central Station, Detroit (MI), USA)

Most of us have a pretty good idea of what railway station is, and what we expect them to be. What we generally don’t expect them to be is a skyscraper. But in America (where else?) several railroad stations combined the type of buildings typical of railway station with skyscraping office blocks or towers that gave them an appearance quite unlike most others. These were no soulless office blocks plonked over the top of a railway station but visually divorced from the business of train travel, as became common in Britain in the 1960s and 70s (Plymouth station springs to mind, having passed through there the other day). Instead, these skyscrapers were (at least to some extent) architecturally integrated into the station and their purposes were linked to the railroad. Today the challenge is to find new meaning and purpose for these huge buildings in an America that often struggles to find sustainable uses for many smaller railroad stations, let alone these behemoths. Over the next two articles, we’ll visit two such stations and their future prospects.

Both Michigan Central Station in Detroit (MI) – this week’s subject – and Buffalo Central Terminal in Buffalo (NY) are long abandoned; sad survivors of the post-war American railroad story of the near-total collapse of long-distance train travel. And both are absolutely fabulous buildings.

By Curt Teich & Co. Chicago., Publisher (Scan from the original work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

They might not be the tallest skyscrapers around, but they are still respectably tall. Michigan Central Station, all 16 storeys of it, was completed before the First World War. London’s first skyscraper – Underground Electric Railways Company of London Ltd’s 55 Broadway (The Beauty of Transport 4 November 2015) – had only 10 floors and wasn’t completed until 1929.

Michigan Central Station is in the news at the moment. It has just been purchased by the Ford Motor Company, which plans to turn the station into a campus containing its autonomous vehicle development division, with space for other local firms.

Michigan Central Station. Photo © 2018 The Ford Motor Company, via Ford’s Media Center, here

Although its main station building is (or was) a piece of quality architecture in its own right, Michigan Central is visually dominated by its 16-floor office tower, which looms over the main station building at its foot. Originally planned to host both offices and a railway hotel, it only ever contained offices of the Michigan Central Railroad, and the upper floors were never fully fitted out. There is an eerie premonition here of the situation many American railroad stations would face after the Second World War, when they found themselves far too large for actual passenger numbers as they faced a near-fatal competitive onslaught from the private automobile. When built, Michigan Central was the tallest railroad station ever constructed. The tower is H-shaped in plan, and remarkably unadorned for a large building of this period. Apart from the huge numbers of identical windows, its chief decorative features are a slight step back on the upper floors behind a balustrade, the arched windows at the top of each vertical run of windows, and a projecting cornice around the top of the tower.

Michigan Central Station. Photo © 2018 The Ford Motor Company, via Ford’s Media Center, here

The station was designed by the architecture practices Warren & Wetmore and Reed & Stem, which together also worked on the rebuilding of Grand Central Terminal in New York (The Beauty of Transport 13 August 2014), completed in 1913 too. Like Grand Central, Michigan Central Station’s main building is in the Beaux Arts style, contrasting with the somewhat plainer office tower, and there is an obvious similarity between the two stations. Grand Central itself was supposed to feature an above-station office skyscraper although that part of the station remained uncompleted at the time. Michigan Central gives a very good idea of how Grand Central would have looked had its tower been completed. The three arched windows on the front of Michigan Central’s main building are very reminiscent of those on Grand Central, and are here flanked by pairs of Doric columns (according to the National Register of Historic Places; they look Corinthian to me) and topped off by scrollwork. Grand Central eventually gained its tower in the 1960s in the shape of the rather more modern 59-floor Pan Am Building; not a genuinely bad building in itself, but much disliked because of its unhappy and over-scale imposition on the Beaux Arts styling of Grand Central below.

Beaux Arts at its finest at Michigan Central… or at least it was when it was built. Photo by Thomas Hawk [CC BY-NC 2.0] via this flickr page

When the station opened, The Architectural Record was no more pleased by the differences in style between main building and office tower than most observers are of the difference between Grand Central and the Pan Am building. “Seen from a distance, the casual observer, unless otherwise informed, would never take the two parts of the station to be portions of one and the same building, so utterly different are they,” it suggested (as noted here). However, to today’s eyes, the station seems well unified compared to the stations like Grand Central.

Inside Michigan Central, there are echoes once again of Grand Central, with arched ceilings, marbled walls and Classical columns, and decoration in metal, glass and tile. Especially distinctive, and setting it apart from Grand Central’s design features, were the skylights and the Guastavino tiling forming the roof vaults, which are separated by coffered arches. Like Grand Central, it is on a massive scale: the main ticket hall is 97 feet / 29.5 metres wide by 230 feet / 70 metres long.

The sad state of Michigan Central today. The Guastavino tiling on the ceiling seems to survive quite well, but the coffered arches are badly damaged. Photo by Thomas Hawk [CC BY-NC 2.0] via this flickr page

It was more than just a standard railroad station, including additional facilities like private baths and dressing rooms where, according to the Detroit Tribune‘s coverage of the station’s opening, a woman would be able to “brush up a bit before starting for Downtown”. Gentlemen’s needs were accommodated too with the incorporation of a barber shop. Other facilities catered to the needs of both sexes, such as a lunch counter and newsstand. And news there was; the station was where Detroit caught a glimpse of Franklin D Roosevelt on the campaign trail, on his campaign train. Those were the days when the railroad was at the heart of American life.

But despite its many facilities and the high quality of its architecture, for many years nobody saw the interior of Michigan Central. Facing a slump in passengers in the post-war period, the station building was closed in the 1960s, and although briefly reopened by Amtrak in the 1970s, the station was sold for redevelopment and closed in the 1980s, with Amtrak services relocating to a new site in Detroit. Plans for the station came and went, with few signs of actual progress on any of them, and there were threats of demolition as the station became more and more decrepit. It wasn’t until its purchase by Ford this summer that the long-term future of the building has had any degree of assurance.

Inside Michigan Central. Photo by Thomas Hawk [CC BY-NC 2.0] via this flickr page

Ford bought the station building in June this year, with plans to locate its autonomous vehicle development facility there. The public were admitted to the station for the first time in decades when the announcement was made, but there’s a huge restoration job to do. The inside of the building is graffitied and damaged, with most of its fixtures and fittings lost. The roofs over the carriage entrance and inner concourse have been lost, and the rusting trusses which once supported them are now exposed to the sky. Ford’s Plans involve the reopening of the concourse to the public with retail and restaurants, and residential conversion of the upper floors of the office building, at last bringing them into use. The retention of at least some of the station platforms is also planned, potentially allowing the return of Amtrak services at some point, always assuming Amtrak’s survival in the long-term; the company seems perpetually to be teetering on the brink, and the current President of the United States of America doesn’t seem to be a particular fan of long-distance train travel.

Inside Michigan Central. Photo © 2018 The Ford Motor Company, via Ford’s Media Center, here

The hunt is now on for original station fixtures and fittings which were sold off in the decades after the station was closed. Ford is making a start by announcing it will replace all the windows in the station, even though the existing windows are less than three years old. They are not, however, sufficiently similar to the originals and so are considered to detract from the building’s appearance.

There is a degree of irony in the station’s purchase by Ford, amongst the foremost makers of the automobiles which tempted travellers away from the railroad and which led to the station’s decline. There’s a lot of nonsense talked about the future of autonomous vehicles, spanning the full gamut of opinion. Some don’t think they will ever achieve a significant degree of autonomy (perhaps the “I think there is a world market for about five computers” school of thought, although that quote is contested), while others foresee a perhaps equally unlikely near-term widespread adoption of fully autonomous vehicles. And in between, those who accept that some degree of autonomy is likely, but who point out that simply replacing human-controlled vehicles with computer controlled ones will perpetuate many of the problems of congestion we have today.

Perhaps the future represented by autonomous vehicles won’t mean the direct replacement of today’s cars with autonomous vehicles, but a more intelligent transport mix in which autonomous vehicles play a role feeding greater use of mass transit modes. In that case Michigan Central might one day see passenger railroad services once again, even if it seems unlikely that the trans-continental railroad services will ever return to America to any significant degree.

A vision for the future: Ford’s visualisation of Michigan Central post-refurbishment. Photo © 2018 The Ford Motor Company, via Ford’s Media Center, here

Although the future of autonomous vehicles might not be clear, that for Michigan Central Station seems bright. A railroad station with a much bigger challenge on its hands is Buffalo Central Terminal. Join me in a fortnight for a look at that.

How to find Michigan Central Station

Click here for The Beauty of Transport‘s map

Bibliography and Further Reading

INSIDE DETROIT’S CRUMBLING TRAIN STATION THAT FORD PLANS TO TRANSFORM INTO A MOBILITY LAB, photo essay at theverge.com (20 Jun 2018), with some lovely photos of some of the station’s details, here

Historic Detroit webpage on Michigan Central Station, here

National Register of Historic Places entry for Michigan Central Station, here (downloadable pdf)

Ford press release on the purchase of Michigan Central Station, here

Photos after Ford purchase: https://www.theverge.com/2018/6/20/17483696/ford-detroit-train-station

…and anything else linked to in the article above

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